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Firefighters attack the flames in the upper floor of 33 Croteau Court during Friday's early morning fire that displaced more than 40 people. (JEFFREY HASTINGS)

Early-morning apartment-building fire leaves 41 people without homes

MANCHESTER - Residents of an apartment building heavily damaged by fire, smoke and water were allowed back into their residences to see what - if anything - they could salvage Friday afternoon.

Two units on the top floor were destroyed and the 22 other apartments were damaged by smoke and the water needed to extinguish the three-alarm blaze, which investigators said was started by an overturned oil lamp. 'Everything's a mess,' said Adam Yousif, who lives on the first floor of the three-story building. 'The whole ceiling has come down on the floor.'

Yousif said his wife and 2-year-old daughter got out safely, but the family's belongings were soaking wet or under the couple of inches of water that remained on the bottom floor of the 26-unit building at 33 Croteau Court.

Yousif said he was allowed back into the building around 3 a.m. and was able to get his daughter's medication.

Property manager David Lynch said he had been told it could take up to six months to finish repairs and make the building habitable again.

'That's a long time,' Lynch said.

The Manchester Fire Department said two people were treated for smoke inhalation, but there were no other injuries.

The Red Cross was on the scene and assisted residents in finding temporary lodging. Lynch said the Prolyn Corp., which runs the apartment complex, was exploring what options it could provide for the 41 residents left homeless.

Lynch, who lives in another building of the complex, said the use of candles or oil lamps like the one that caused the fire is forbidden.

The fire department initially estimated the damage at $200,000, but Lynch thought it could cost much more to get the building back up to code. The fire compromised the gas, water and electrical lines.

The fire started around 12:30 a.m. in a unit on the third floor. Flames destroyed the roof above that apartment and left a gaping hole spanning the hallway and the unit next door.

After the alarms, Lynch and some other people banged on doors to make certain everyone was out before the fire spread.

Victor Vallee of Manchester credited Lynch for getting his 67-year-old mother out of the building. Laura Vallee, who has lived at the complex for eight years, wasn't awakened by the fire alarms because she is hard of hearing.

Lynch knocked on the apartment door of Vallee's mother, and when she didn't respond, he unlocked it, went inside and found her still asleep.

'I just want him to get some recognition for what he did,' Vallee said.

The apartment complex was built in 1981-82, before sprinklers systems were required, Lynch said. There has never been a significant fire in the apartments, he said, though there have been small kitchen fires that never required 911 calls.

It took an hour and 15 minutes to get the fire under control, and the water used to put out the blaze cascaded down to the apartments on the two floors below.

Don Parkinson Jr., who lives on the first floor, said two inches of water covered his entire apartment, which also had heavy smoke damage.

Parkinson wasn't sure where he would go or what he would be able to salvage. He said earlier in the week he had scheduled an appointment to get renter insurance, but the appointment wasn't until Friday afternoon.

'Of all days, this happens,' Parkinson said, shaking his head as he stood on the lawn in front of his apartment. 'What are the chances on that? That is crazy,'

District Fire Chief Michael Gamache said fire crews were delayed getting to the scene by about 30 seconds because engines had been dispatched just moments earlier to a fire on Elm Street. That turned out to be a small kitchen blaze and the trucks were rerouted to Croteau Court.

Engines, equipment and firefighters from other parts of the city also soon arrived at Croteau Court. Fire crews began an immediate search of the building for tenants, locating a man who has difficulty walking and his wife on the second floor, directly below the apartment where the fire started. They were helped out of the building as it rapidly filled with smoke. The couple were taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, Gamache said.

As the search and evacuation were taking place, Gamache said the fire accelerated in the attic space. Off-duty firefighters were called in as the fire went to three alarms. In all, between 150 and 200 firefighters were at the scene.


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